I Don’t Want To Be Seen As A Victim Of Sexual Assault But I Don’t Like Being A Survivor Either

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we’re finally having a long overdue discussion about sexual assault. This is a good thing—how else can we start to make a change without spreading awareness first? Still, as the conversation continues, it also gets a bit more muddled, especially when it comes to those of us who’ve experienced sexual assault first-hand.

  1. Language is powerful. There’s a big difference between the implications of “victim” and “survivor.” A victim is passive and helpless but a survivor is strong and powerful, someone who’s overcome what’s happened to them. Although there’s no right or wrong term, and different people will choose to identify with different ones, it’s so important that we’re the ones who get to choose for ourselves. Imposing labels without asking is unhelpful at best and can be really hurtful.
  2. There’s no such thing as the “perfect” victim. You know the one—always a woman, petite, maybe blonde, definitely white, and dresses modestly but still attractively. She was completely sober and fought back just the right amount so that it was obvious that what happened was assault and not sex that she regretted. If you don’t fit that completely ridiculous persona, you can’t be a “real victim” because somehow, you’re partly to blame. Obviously, that’s not true, but it doesn’t stop people thinking that you’re not allowed to be a victim.
  3. Sometimes there are gray areas in abusive relationships. Let me make it clear: anything that’s not enthusiastically consented to is assault. Even if you’ve done it before, even if you’ve said yes before, if you don’t obviously and happily say yes without being forced to, it’s assault. But when assault occurs within a relationship which isn’t obviously toxic, there can be a lot of conflicting and confusing experiences and associations. When people start to demand that you fit into a neat little box after you’ve experienced abuse, they don’t give you space to properly process what happened.
  4. Recovery doesn’t have a time limit. People have a really short attention span. As soon as something new and more exciting comes along, we move on from the first event and think that everyone else should move on too—you’re only allowed to be sad about one thing for so long. So when you’re still struggling to function normally after months of therapy, people start to get tired of your victimhood and want you to move on too. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
  5. Recovery isn’t a straight line either. As great as it would be, there’s not a handy checklist that you can work your way through as you get “better” after being assaulted. Sometimes you don’t make progress for a long time, and sometimes you go backward and feel like a victim again after being a survivor for a while. The idea that you continuously move forward isn’t just unhelpful, it’s completely wrong.
  6. Some things will always make me feel like a victim. No matter how much of a survivor you might be in 90% of your life, there are some triggers that make you panic and feel like a victim again. Whether it’s the brand of cigarette he smoked or someone surprising you from behind your back, sometimes things catch you by surprise and set you back. Needing a safe space to deal with these things doesn’t mean you’re still a victim, it just means you experienced something that can’t be fixed easily.
  7. Assault doesn’t make you a better person. Assault isn’t a lesson that you can learn from. It’s not a punishment for being promiscuous or an experience that you have to have to grow up. It’s a terrible thing that happens to people who don’t deserve it. When people constantly tell you that you’re “thriving” and “stronger” after assault, it gives a whole lot of credit to the abuser, even if they mean it well. I’m not a hero for having survived, I’m just a person who’s trying to be normal.
  8. I’m not obliged to be an inspiration. Some of the most vocal and powerful campaigners for equality and against assault have experienced assault themselves, and they do so many good things. But I’m not a campaigner and I don’t want to be. Even though the pressure to go public with your story can sometimes feel overwhelming, sharing your experience in detail is not a requirement to continue in your recovery and “earn” the label of “thriver.”
  9. I am not my assault. This is 100% true, no matter what label you identify with. I’m so much more than what I experienced, and so is everyone else who’s been through it. I’m a daughter, a friend, a dog owner, a keen-but-ultimately-useless runner, and an enthusiastic baker to name a few. These are what define me, not the fact that I’ve experienced abuse, so don’t label me like I have nothing else to offer.
  10. There’s no right or wrong way to live after abuse. Everyone deals with assault and recovery in different ways. Some people will be genuinely empowered by being called a survivor while some people will feel like a victim for a long time, and that’s OK. No one has the right to tell you how you should be feeling, and no one can tell you what you should be.
  11. I’m not a victim or a survivor, I am just a person. I don’t have to fit into a category, it’s not an either-or question. What matters is that I’m still here, I’m still living, and I’m still me.
Lizzy is a freelance writer from Manchester, England, and a self-confessed nerd for all things historical and literary. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably giving her friends (and her dog) drunken life advice.